Few vehicles are better off-road than a Jeep Wrangler. This is the one that started it all. Traceable to the original Jeep, the Wrangler is the very symbol of off-road capability.
The Wrangler was redesigned for the 2007 model year. At the same time, the four-door Wrangler Unlimited was added to the lineup. The four-door doesn't change the character of the Wrangler but makes it easier to own and more practical for many. It's much more comfortable and convenient, offering more cargo and rear-seat passenger space.
Still, the traditional two-door Wrangler has its charms. We enjoy all of them, including the entry models with skinny tires.
The 2009 Wrangler has only minor changes over the previous year, including a couple of new colors and some minor interior storage features. Hill Start Assist, which makes it easier to get moving from rest while heading uphill, is standard equipment, and the optional Trailer Tow Group includes Trailer Sway control, which monitors vehicle movement relative to the driver's intended path and initiates the activation of the electronic stability control if the trailer begins to sway to an excessive degree.
The Wrangler is available in a very wide range of models and trim levels and with an extensive array of optional equipment and features. This makes the possible number of combinations much more than we can cover here. To have the most complete information on the Wrangler that would best suit your purposes, you would do well to visit your local Jeep dealer.
All Wranglers have a 3.8-liter V6 engine; there is no four-cylinder engine available. The standard six-speed manual fits the Wrangler's personality, but the optional four-speed automatic is more convenient. We can't imagine getting a Wrangler without the highly capable four-wheel-drive, a part-time system that includes low-range gearing, but there are two-wheel-drive Unlimited models available.
The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most widely recognizable vehicles in the world. The latest generation looks quite similar to the previous version, which ended production with the 2006 model year. Most important, Wranglers have always had a distinct family resemblance to the original Jeep of World War II fame.
Up front you'll find the classic round headlamps, Jeep's seven-slot grille, and a front bumper with integrated fog lamps. The upright fold-down windshield is slightly curved for better aerodynamics and reduced wind noise.
Along the sides, all Wranglers have assist steps under the doors to make climbing in easier, and fender flares that are bolted on, so they can be easily taken off for repair or replacement.
The standard soft top is relatively easy to remove and install. The Sunrider soft top slides back half way, like a huge sunroof over the front seats. The optional three-piece modular hardtop (Freedom Top) has two front panels that easily pop on and off like a T-top, and can be stored behind the rear seat. The third panel over the rear seat can be removed separately and stored in the garage. The Freedom Top yields a total of six open-air possibilities.
Under the body, there's a boxed frame with seven crossmembers. Wide-spaced frame rails cradle the fuel tank between the wheels. Three skid plates protect the fuel tank, transfer case and automatic transmission oil pan.
Wranglers have traditionally been known as cramped inside. The current Jeep Wrangler two-door is a lot roomier inside than pre-2007 models, thanks to its increased width. The comfortable high-back front seats offer more shoulder and hip room than previous-generation models, and the removable rear seat provides more shoulder, hip and leg room for each of the two passengers. There's also more space behind the rear seat, which folds to provide nearly twice the cargo capacity as before.
The larger Unlimited offers more than 80 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded flat. The headrests flip back, so they don't need to be removed, making it easy to switch between cargo and rear-seat-passenger modes. In the rear seat, the Unlimited offers 1.6 more inches of leg room and a whopping 12 inches more hip room than two-door models. That huge difference is because, in the two-door model, the rear passengers sit directly over the axle and between the wheel wells; in the Unlimited, the axle is located behind the passengers. That also greatly improves the ride for rear-seat riders in the Unlimited.
The layout of the clean instrument panel is excellent, against a background of dull (neither flat nor gloss) plastic. The instruments, including the optional compass and temperature gauges, are easy to read, and the controls are simple. The solid square buttons look good and are easy to understand and operate. There's a nice four-spoke steering wheel, with a short cruise-control stalk that's out of the way on the right side. The materials are made of sturdy plastic that works well in the utilitarian Wrangler.
The optional 368-watt Infinity sound system comes with seven speakers, including a subwoofer. That's a lot of speakers for a Jeep, but we think this is a good thing. It comes with Sirius satellite radio, good for keeping up with the news when out in the boonies. Located under the sound system controls are big climate-control knobs, with buttons for available power windows above that.
Between the seats are the shift lever, a short four-wheel-drive lever, two cupholders, emergency brake handle, and a console that's wide and deep, if not long. The locking glove box is pretty big and there's a convenient grab handle above it. This is a Jeep, after all, so the grab handle will be used on bouncy roads – or where there are no roads at all.
The modular Freedom Top for the Unlimited features sections that easily lift off and can be stored behind the rear seat. The larger section over the rear seat can also be removed but can't be stored in the vehicle; you'll have to leave it at home. We found storing the two roof panels eliminates most of the cargo space. Cargo space is not unlimited in the Unlimited. We couldn't fit four carry-on-sized bags behind the rear seat. And watch out for the rear glass on the Freedom Top; it rises on its own when opened, and will whack you on the chin (or forehead, or nose) if you forget to step back.
If you've never owned or driven a Wrangler, you might think it's twitchy and choppy. But it's a relative thing. Compared to earlier versions, the current model feels like a luxury liner.
Compared to the last-generation Wrangler, the wheelbase is longer and the front and rear tracks are wider, the chassis has been stiffened and the suspension redesigned. All these things yield significant improvements in the ride and handling, but still, on city streets, the Wrangler is pretty bouncy, and out on the freeway it can feel squiggly over pavement changes. On rougher surfaces the driver needs to pay attention to keep the Wrangler going in a straight line.
That said, we drove the Wrangler at speeds up to 85 miles per hour on the open freeway and, when the pavement was smooth, it was stable and surprisingly quiet. If the road was even slightly rough, the ride would quickly deteriorate.
However, it's important to note that our Sahara had the 18-inch wheels with on/off-road tires and high-pressure gas-charged shock absorbers. The Wrangler X uses 16-inch tires, also on/off-road, but the shocks are low-pressure, so that combination might offer a slightly smoother ride.
The 3.8-liter V6 engine has overhead valves and makes 202 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque. Acceleration is good, but on those long uphill 75-mph grades between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, the automatic transmission kept kicking down out of the fourth-gear overdrive, until we turned the overdrive off. More torque at lower rpm might have prevented this. We didn't have the opportunity to test the standard six-speed manual transmission, but we're inclined to suggest it might be more compatible with the Jeep than this four-speed automatic.
The Wrangler Unlimited would have been a different animal on this road. The ride is significantly smoother and the handling more stable, thanks to a wheelbase that's 20.6 inches longer. The Unlimited also weighs more, so the engine will work a bit harder. However, all 4WD Wranglers are EPA-rated at 15 city and 19 highway miles per gallon.
When we drove the Unlimited around Lake Tahoe, there were a lot of other Jeeps on the road, and our four-door never failed to turn heads. At the view points, Jeep owners would ogle and marvel, and many of them expressed a strong interest in having a Jeep with four doors.
We were also behind the wheel of an Unlimited with the six-speed manual transmission on the rugged Rubicon Trail, where its capability was downright dazzling. In low range and first gear on the most challenging sections, we drove without using our feet; merely steering over daunting obstacles and letting the vehicle do the rest. The two-door Wrangler should be even more capable.
The only limitation with the Unlimited was its turning radius of 41.2 feet versus 34.9 feet with the two-door. Six feet is a big difference. In San Francisco, we used the two-door's tight turning radius to make a U-turn in the middle of a street to snatch a parking space on the other side.
The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most capable off-road vehicles available today. Its four-wheel drive system also offers all-weather capability and its convertible body style offers open-air fun. The Unlimited body style has greater cargo capacity, making the Wrangler more practical. You'll give up a lot of ride and handling prowess, as well as fuel mileage, but the Wrangler is fun.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses drove Wrangler models up the Rubicon Trail, through San Francisco and around Lake Tahoe while preparing this report. Kirk Bell reported from Chicago.